Does your stock photo represent your customer?

Abby Ballard on September 29, 2017

For the past six years of my life, I have spent a decent amount of time scrolling through photo sites.

Not for fun (I swear), but in my various jobs I have always been required to find Stock images to illustrate articles we were publishing.

If you’re scratching your head as to what these “Stock images” are, they are professional photographs that are often used on billboards, websites, and in magazines.

Stock photos are everywhere. It’s like the butterfly effect; once you start looking they won’t stop popping up.

While you – as the consumer – may not even notice a Stock image, it has been drilled into me since the first day I started as an online content producer that images matter. Not just because people are visual readers now, but the first image that a person sees on an article can make or break it.

woman tired at work

This is your classic Stock photo. And should never be used.

Truly. At Mamamia, if we have an article that we think will get good traffic and it doesn’t, one of the things we pull apart is the images we chose.

Did it not give enough intrigue? Would a closer image have suited it better? Was the image too ‘stocky’ (the infamous term applied to a photograph that just looks too posed, even though all Stock photos are posed. Alas).

As well as the critical impact of images in driving traffic, they have another role: they influence our culture.

I have always known this in the back of my head, however, a piece by one of my favourite authors, Nama Winston, brought the issue to light.

“Stock photos matter because many of us have been raised, and are raising girls, to believe they can do and be anything, because they are empowered human beings who aren’t restricted by their gender,” Nama wrote. “We’re not just being mothers and wives and baking.”

The impact Stock photos on culture was supported by Arwa Madhawi in The Guardian, where she said these photos set our societal tone.

Stock photos don’t just reflect culture, they help create it. They reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes,” Madhawi wrote.

This hasn’t gone unrecognised and, in the last few years, there has been a big push to change perceptions through stock photos – particularly when it comes to gender.”

I don’t need to bang-on further about the impact on the imagery we present people. Just refer to the photoshop/magazine debate for more on that.

But, what few understand outside the world of publishing and advertising, is just how darn hard it is to find images online that aren’t reinforcing societal stereotypes.

I’ll just show you. Here, I created a gallery of an “average” woman’s day, from the moment she wakes up to when she finally gets back into bed.

The photos I selected are the very first images that popped up when I searched.

You can take away these things from that:

  1. Only one, out of 11 photos, showed a non-white woman
  2. Only one woman, out of the 11 photos, looked over the age of 40 Women pictured with their children, such as the one dropping their kid to school, don’t look like they are going to ‘work’ – inferring  that only women who stay at home, look after their kids
  3. Most ‘mothers’ are depicted as 25 and under despite the average age of first time mothers being 30+
  4. The photo of a woman in a ‘meeting’ only has one other person – a woman – and they are looking very casual
  5. When I searched “woman driving home”, the first image result didn’t even show the woman, rather a son running to ‘daddy’. Now we’re just not featuring women, whatsoever
  6. When I searched for a woman watching TV with her ‘partner’, the photos only depicted men (not women in same-sex relationships)

Every single day, when I am trying to pick an image that illustrates a woman – of any age, colour, relationship status, sexuality, or wealth – this is what I am faced with.

This is what anyone in this industry is faced with.

It makes it even harder for people who acknowledge this bias, to make a change in the images they choose.

In reassuring news, Getty isn’t sitting on its hands waiting for the world to change.

They have made active efforts to diversify the presentation of women, primarily by partnering with COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg. She has created a “Lean In” photo series of women, doing all the beautiful, messy, complicated, and fiercely impressive things that women do.

As Mamamia, and fellow digital publishers, recognise that women don’t come in the body of a white, under 30, thin, heterosexual woman, we are starting to choose photos that reflect it.

teenage girls at skatepark

An example of the Lean In photo series.

However, many resist change, with a desperately unfair, yet true acknowledgement that this woman we have become accustomed is what people are most attracted to.

As Nama wrote “[In] an article about my personal experience of racism, it was “sold” to the public by using a stock photo of a white, blonde woman – the exact opposite of me. I had to question the editor as to whether he thought that a photo representing the article better would receive less clicks – and sadly, the answer was yes. Major facepalm.”

And, as Tara Moss wrote in her book, The Fictional Woman, “[it’s] why we hear so much debate about advertisements, airbrushing, makeup and magazine models – because beautiful and highly successful women exist within those pages, and there are clear income streams to be made in those associations.”

While that makes for sobering reading, Moss also included, “Women who work in advertising and commercial publications have powerful public voices due to the nature of their occupations.”

Moss probably didn’t think it at the time, but I am one of those women.

No, I’m not on TV or emblazoned in your Facebook, but I am responsible for the images that are.

With that in mind, you probably are too, if you are reading this.

Diversity often doesn’t happen organically. We don’t end up with more women sitting on boards, women in Parliament, or even just in the workforce, because they rolled out of bed one day and decided to.

It’s a manual, arduous process.

Next time you’re in the position of power, even if it’s as small as me, don’t pick the 18-year-old model to represent the mother of a 12-year-old child.

Pick the true woman. In whatever size, colour, or creed she comes in.


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